volume 2 number 3

Chairs are perhaps the most sculptural of all Chinese furniture forms. At best, they appear animated with spirit and balanced like three-dimensional calligraphic brushwork.

In Ming and Qing dynasty China, the chair could also signify status and achievement. Terms like ‘official’s hat chair’, ‘grand master’s chair’ (taishi yi), as well as 'bubugaogao base stretchers' that ‘ascend with each step’ all reflect the age-old aspiration toward emolument.

Most traditional chair forms emerged during the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, and over the following centuries of gradual refinement, developed into to the mature classical patterns that are universally admired today. Webpages at <; explore the variety of traditional chairs with images from woodblock prints and paintings. A range of traditional Chinese chairs from the Shanju Shanghai collection are also now on display at <>

The meditation chair is deeper than the average chair, and nearly half again in height. Those with thin lacquer finishes are best; spotted bamboo is also acceptable. They are especially enjoyable to use when the crestrail is shaped from thick material as a headrest.
Gao Lian, Eight Discourses on the Art of Living (c. 1590)

The use of nanmu and nanmu burl (douban nan) is frequently mentioned in the writings Ming and Qing literati as materials par excellence for cabinet construction, decorative panels, as well as smaller desktop objects. Surviving works nanmu also frequently reflect the subtlety of subdued and understated literati taste.

The medium density timber is very stable and evenly textured, and its tonality can range from olive- to reddish-brown. The surface has soft tactility and polishes to a warm, lustrous glow. That which is called jinsi nanmu also shimmers with translucent radiance. The timber is highly resistant to moisture decay and boring insects, and therefore became the ideal standard for storage of paintings, books and textiles.

Nanmu is commonly misrepresented as 'cedar'. While the timber shares some characteristics of the coniferous cedar, there is no botanical relationship; rather, nanmu belongs to the broadleaf evergreen laurel family, of which more than thirty varieties are found south of the Yangzi River.

'Palace-Style' Furniture
During the Qing dynasty, officials returning or visiting the capital frequently presented the Emperor with tribute goods. Records of such offerings also reveal gifts of luxurious hardwood furniture for the palace environs. During the year 1771 alone, over ninety objects of zitan were received, including throne chairs, screens, tables, cabinets, and other miscellaneous objects. In one instance, the Salt Administrator from the Liang Huai region provided of a complete set of zitan and speckled bamboo furnishings, including a three-panel screen, throne, daybed, desk, pair of incense stands, pair of kang tables, pair of lute tables, four pairs of drum stools, and ceremonial fans. The numerous furnishings of zitan and huanghuali contributed during the same year from Guangzhou, Fuzhou, Suzhou, Ningbo, and Hangzhou suggest that so-called ‘palace-style’ furniture existed outside the Imperial domain and throughout the affluent regions of the empire....

Classical Elegance
When natural substance prevails over ornamentation, you get the boorishness of the rustic. When ornamentation prevails over natural substance, you get the pedantry of the scribe. Only when ornament and substance are duly blended do you get the true gentleman.

In China, classical aesthetics and principles emerged from obscure, yet mystical antiquity. Throughout dynastic history, they were venerated for reflecting the universal laws that unified Heaven, Earth and Man, and they were repeatedly returned to for the cultivation of the mind and heart. According to the Classics, distinctions of 'beauty unmarred by excess' (wenli er bu yin) and 'unmixed purity of form' (fengqing er bu za) were characteristic of 'classical elegance' (dianya); and attributes of 'simple and unadorned' (jianlian) and 'lucid and logical' (xianfu) were also said to reflect the virtue of a cultivated mind. Though seemingly rooted in the old and past, the genuinely classical has flavor that never seems to lose its freshness.

The term ‘classic’ seems appropriate to describe this traditional Chinese furniture because its basic structure descends directly from ancient times, and primarily because it possesses the qualities of restraint, balance, clarity and grandeur that we associate with a classic style in any medium or culture.
Laurence Sickman, Lecture on Chinese Furniture (1978).

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Classical Chinese Furniture